Saturday, December 31, 2011

They Grow Up So Fassbender

So here it is, New Year's Eve, it's high time I made my annual movie rankings. I managed to see twenty 2011 movies, better than I usually do and considering only a month and a half ago I realised I'd only seen three, pretty good. But there are a few more movies I'd have liked to have seen--War Horse and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. And I'm downright angry I can't see Take Shelter. I may amend it later, but for now, here's my list, from worst to best.

It's been a year of Fassbending, mature children, and brilliant Danish directors;

21. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Wikipedia entry, my review)

No amount of liquor could dilute the massive injection of emptiness. Yes, the experience is that bleak.

20. Captain America: The First Avenger (Wikipedia entry, my review)

Possibly a movie written by someone with a good, carefree heart. Likely written by someone who doesn't see anything wrong with Hallmark greeting cards.

19. Hanna (Wikipedia entry, my review)

There's a sweetness and some sometimes effective fairy tale quality to this movie, but mostly it falls apart due to glaring improbabilities and weak characterisation.

18. X-Men: First Class (Wikipedia entry, my review)

A great Fassbender Magneto and his decent action scenes make up too small a part of this movie.

17. The Tree of Life (Wikipedia entry, my review)

The more I think about this movie the less I like it. Malick's Grace/Nature dichotomy is the sort of complex that makes priests into child molesters. The perfect mother portrayed in this movie helps no-one, least of all mothers. It does have beautiful imagery.

16. Nyan Cat

15. Sleeping Beauty (Wikipedia entry, my review)

This movie probably would've fallen below the Nyan Cat mark if I wasn't a heterosexual male. But Emily Browning just looks too good naked.

14. Cowboys and Aliens (Wikipedia entry, my review)

Weak action sequences and poor alien designs are barely overcome by the film's leads and a nice western atmosphere.

13. Thor (Wikipedia entry, my review)

A nice, kiddy version of King Lear.

12. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Wikipedia entry, my review)

This dark comedy has fooled a lot of critics into thinking it's a drama or thriller.

11. Hugo (Wikipedia entry, my review)

Lovely visuals and a nice statement about living for one's dreams.

10. Your Highness (Wikipedia entry, my review)

I may be the only person in the world who liked this movie, but I highly recommend it to D&D players.

9. Source Code (Wikipedia entry, my review)

A tight, satisfying little Sci-Fi film, it's like a good episode of Star Trek.

8. Shame (Wikipedia entry, my review)

Absolutely brilliant, uncompromising performances by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

7. Super 8 (Wikipedia entry, my review)

Super 8 is at super number 7! Heh. *cough* In a year of movies obsessed with taking kids seriously, this is the one that did it best.

6. Midnight in Paris (Wikipedia entry, my review)

This one's like a good episode of Doctor Who.

5. Bridesmaids (Wikipedia entry, my review)

A sure-footed, clever, gross out chick flick.

4. A Separation (Wikipedia entry, my review)

A brilliant exhibition of human behaviour.

3. A Dangerous Method (Wikipedia entry, my review)

Aragorn plays Xavier to Carl Jung's Magneto in this more cerebral version of First Class. But seriously, of all the Fassbender movies this year, this was my favourite. And it made me like Keira Knightley.

2. Melancholia (Wikipedia entry, my review)

A wonderful, premium mudbath. Gorgeous imagery evoking despair and the strange grace that can go along with it.

1. Drive (Wikipedia entry, my review)

My number 1 was a tough choice between these two Danish filmmakers, but at the end of the day I have to give it to Drive for its great complexity told with heart cutting simplicity. If you google "Top ten movies of 2011" this movie's number 1 on an astonishing number and variety of lists. I really think it's going to be remembered as one of the great noirs. And this gives me an opportunity to say something I didn't say in my original review--I thought about it later and I realised the reason Albert Brooks' mobster villain is so effective isn't that he's ruthless. It's that he gets you to agree with him. He at first wants to let the Driver go in the face of Ron Perlman's rage. Everyone he kills, Brooks' character explains why it's necessary so reasonably. And it compliments perfectly the Driver's awareness of his own demons.

Twitter Sonnet #339

Raging tea burns through the new plastic spoon.
Misplaced April swirls in hidden yoghurt.
Unclaimed pixie sticks spill out a large dune.
Ernie is at last quite tender to Bert.
Linen baths reveal staring fibre shine.
Broken rungs burn with step information.
Just square heads fit in the rectangle mine.
Observed dates buttress Christ's penetration.
Purple fossil tinsel vibrates the Earth.
Generals shout at the ancient city.
Atoms ricochet off of Colin Firth.
Pigeons regard red carpets sans pity.
Hard subjectivity's to-day's special.
Inconsequential paper's essential.

In his blog to-day, Neil Gaiman has a New Year's Wish I rather liked;

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something.

So that's my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody's ever made before. Don't freeze, don't stop, don't worry that it isn't good enough, or it isn't perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you're scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

It reminded me of how yesterday I was looking at the craft shop like mad for cheap newsprint. I finally found it. Because every artist needs paper he or she doesn't mind screwing up.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Catalysts and Dreams

Just fifteen minutes in, I was immensely grateful to the universe that I was watching David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method. Which sounds more like Jung than Freud. Well, Freud, I was just happy, how's that? It's an extraordinary thing--a movie that's mostly just people talking and where nothing hugely dramatic happens. There's no-one screaming from a mountain top while the music swells. Just wonderful talking--it's a tonic after weeks of watching 2011 movies playing it big, and it's great in itself. This is Cronenberg's best movie since Spider.

And when I say talking, I mean intellectual discourse. It's so cannily portrayed, I found myself wanting to engage with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) when she starts putting forward the idea to Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) that Wagner's Siegfried suggests to us that pure, perfect things like the hero can only come from sin, even, as in the case of Siegfried, incest. I wanted to reply, "But Siegried's existence precipitates the end of the world. Then again, I guess you could blame the Nibelung for that." This is the third movie I've seen from this year to invoke Wagner (after Melancholia and Captain America). Jung would probably say I ought to pay attention to this, as he considers it significant that Spielrein brings up Siegfried not knowing he'd just begun writing a paper on Siegfried. But he tells her his favourite opera in Wagner's ring series is Das Rheingold, which doesn't even have Siegfried in it. Perhaps he liked it because it most concerns the dealings of the gods--it would make sense since he had a belief in mysticism, though I don't know if his preference for Das Rheingold is something invented for the movie.

I'd never heard of Sabina Spielrein but I loved her in this movie. Drawing from her own personality which was influenced by sexual abuse at the hands of her father, she crafts her interesting theory from Siegfried, suggesting a relationship between sex and the destruction of the ego, death, before Freud does. It's the first time I've really liked a Keira Knightley performance--I've seen her in movies I've liked, like Never Let Me Go, but her performance has always lacked layers for me. Here she has them and I suspect this has a lot to with Cronenberg restraining her at times. She does things in this movie I've never seen her do before--her strange physical mannerisms that begin fairly dramatic when Spielrein's in an asylum evolve naturally into subtler ripples of personality when she becomes cured by Jung, who uses Freud's methods with her.

I wasn't being very articulate yesterday and I wanted to say what made Hugo's characters so flat is that they think too slow. I heard people in the audience saying lines before the characters did. Children, even. A Dangerous Method shows how it's done right--when Jung laughs at his patient Otto Gross suggesting it's actually Gross who's been successfully treating Jung during their sessions, the audience laughs at the same time. This is on Cronenberg because we cut to Jung laughing--Cronenberg understands the pattern of human thought better than Scorsese does now, or maybe Scorsese just can't do it in the context of a film like Hugo.

Like Spielrein, I find myself compelled to agree with Freud's preference for a psychoanalytic discipline based more on the scientific method. Viggo Mortensen provides a slightly unorthodox portrayal of Freud but a fascinating and credible one. He's cool, confident and aloof to Jung's youthful, anxious need to develop more proactive methods, his version of psychoanalysis closer to religion than Freud's. At the same time I agreed more with Freud, I thought Jung was insightful in his claim that Freud had isolated himself among sycophants. When Freud refuses to tell Jung about a dream he had because he felt it would erode his position of authority, I agreed with Jung when he said that by saying this Freud lost his position of authority.

This has been the year of Fassbender, it seems--this is the third movie from this year I saw him in. And he gives a performance great and completely distinct from the others. He's anxious, but relatively cool and fairly ascetic.

By the way, I urge you not to watch the trailer for this movie before seeing it. I didn't watch the trailer until I used it to get these screenshots and it misrepresents the film pretty sensationally. It's, again, a delightfully low key film. So many movies make me think of the John Cleese line from Meaning of Life; "What's wrong with a kiss, boy? . . . we have all these possibilities before we stampede towards the clitoris."

I'm fascinated to see the screenwriter for A Dangerous Method is the same guy who wrote the screenplay for the over the top Atonement, which I guess goes to show what a difference a director makes. Of all Cronenberg's films, this one's probably closest to The Brood, and I'd say The Brood is a superior film for its terrifically imaginative and disturbing version of psychotherapy. But I wouldn't want to undersell A Dangerous Method. It's a too rare example of the power of people just exchanging ideas in a movie.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

We Need to Talk About the Children It Seems

Yesterday's double feature told me there are good sullen faced kids like Hugo and there are very bad sullen faced kids like Kevin (We Need to Talk About Kevin). Both are good, very different movies about growing up, Hugo being the superior of the two films.

Both Hugo and Kevin identify with Robin Hood. Hugo because he lives and helps others through acts of theft. He lives in a train station, where he secretly maintains the clocks after the disappearance of his uncle, who had taken charge of him after the death of his father. The movie's consciously Dickensian as the orphan Hugo lives by his wits, evading the clutches of Station Inspector Gustav, played by Sacha Baron Cohen.

He's the most interesting, stand alone character in the movie, both because of Cohen's comic timing and also because I suspect Scorsese allowed him to improvise some of his lines. The rest of the characters, particularly the children, are a bit limp. When Hugo laments his loneliness when it seems he's unable to get his automaton working, it made me roll my eyes rather than sympathise with the poor kid.

The movie succeeds with its concepts. It almost feels like two movies--Hugo's coming of age story and the story of Ben Kingsley's character rediscovering himself. The latter tale is the better, involving scenes where Scorsese carefully reconstructed film sets of Georges Melies films. The sets and costumes easily trump the visually impressive cgi of the rest of the film.

Scorsese seemed obviously more connected to the plot about old movies as the kid adventure nominally at the centre, again, feels flat. It's a boy and a girl coming of age and there's business about how she happens to keep around her neck the only key, heart shaped, that will get Hugo's automaton working. It's impossible not to think of it as a sexual metaphor, and it's kind of interesting that it's the girl who has the key. But mostly this is a movie to see for the visuals, for the homages to early films, and for the supporting cast.

As usual these days in Scorsese films, he's assembled an impressive bunch of supporting actors, including, to my surprise, Christopher Lee as the owner of a bookshop. I love going to a movie not expecting to see Christopher Lee and suddenly having Christopher Lee turn up. He's the one who gives Hugo the book on Robin Hood.

For Kevin, the most important lesson in the tale of Robin Hood is that you can kill people with a bow and arrow.

I'm still not sure if We Need to Talk About Kevin is a dry, dark comedy or a movie that takes itself so seriously that it's unintentionally funny. It's entertaining in either case.

The story's told from the perspective of Kevin's mother, Tilda Swinton, who despite being some sort of famous world adventurer, is so bereft of imagination she's taken quite by surprise when her son murders a bunch of people. I'm not spoiling anything by telling you this--we learn about it fairly early on, as most of the story is told in flashback. We shift back and forth between Eva's (Swinton) recollections of Kevin growing up and Eva's attempts to adapt to life on her own with her murderer son in prison. For some reason that's not explained, everyone in town seems to blame Eva for what happened, and she's met with scorn in the street and at work.

You often hear about killers who are described as nice, quiet, and seemingly incapable of hurting a fly. That's not Kevin, who as a toddler is glowering and uncooperative, who wears diapers until he's five or six apparently because he enjoys humiliating his mother when she changes him. The kid breaks things, he damages Eva's belongings, motivated to do so clearly by a weird, irrepressible rage at his mother and reality. Eva takes him to the doctor once to see if he has autism, but otherwise throughout Kevin's violent asshole's tour of childhood she apparently never thinks to consult a psychiatrist. Thus the title, I suppose.

Perhaps it's her husband, Franklin, played with his hallmark obliviousness by John C. Rielly, who constantly puts Kevin's behaviour down to boys being boys. The only thing that he and Eva seem to have in common is lack of imagination and one wonders how they got together, their chemistry is so non-existent.

There are a lot of strange scenes of Eva trying to figure out what makes Kevin tick, like one scene where she decides to take Kevin to dinner. She comes downstairs dressed and finds Kevin eating a massive piece of meat. Most parents would probably upbraid the kid and stay home. Eva looks shocked and wounded and takes the kid to dinner anyway.

She asks Kevin, "How's school?" and he replies by mockingly going through a litany of clich├ęd questions a disconnected parent would ask their kid--what bands do you listen to, is there a girl you like, have you experimented with drugs. Any parent with a halfway decent sense of humour would probably laugh along with Kevin and cop to some awkwardness. Eva, again, freezes like a deer in headlights.

Kevin is so over the top, obviously Killer McKillingham and Eva is such an infallible straight it's like some kind of demented version of the Odd Couple where the Joker and Batman get an apartment together after Batman's had a lobotomy. Then there's another layer of inexplicable in scenes like the one where Eva accidentally walks in on Kevin masturbating. She's about to leave immediately but stops to look him in the eye. He looks back unflinchingly before she retreats with a shocked, "Oh!" like he was the one being weird. There are some shots that seem intended to indicate some sort of connexion between Eva's and Kevin's personality--there’s a repeated juxtaposition of Eva and Kevin washing their faces in a submerged, low angle shot, but this connexion is never really explored or elaborated on.

In any case, it's an enjoyable movie. I'm still not sure whether or not it's meant to be taken seriously, but funny is funny.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Worlds Blue, Yellow, and Black

It's a good thing Lars von Trier didn't consult me about making Melancholia. I might have told him using the name "Melancholia" for a planet about to collide with the Earth was too broad a metaphor and I'd have been wrong. Melancholia is a brilliantly beautiful, romantic and insightful film about depression.

The movie opens with a series of surreal, filmed still-lives, one of which reveals that Melancholia's impact with Earth is certain. Then follows the wedding reception for Kirsten Dunst's character Justine, whose inability to feel joy despite her earnest attempts to is nicely reflected by the subtly horrific meaninglessness of everything everyone does when destruction lies around the corner.

Among the surreal images in the beginning is a shot of Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow burning. The colour palette for what's been called Von Trier's most polished film seems to jive with the sort of eerie contrast in Bruegel's painting. The subject of the painting, as in much of the movie's shots, is people going about their lives with nothing nominally sinister happening, and yet the darkness of the figures and the greenish sky give the image a strange gloom.

The wedding takes place at a hotel and golf course owned by Justine's brother in law John, played by Kiefer Sutherland, whose character is a conservative amateur astronomer who dismisses dire predictions about Melancholia's course like a phoney scientist dismissing the dire predictions of climate scientists. John's one of those guys who simply can't wrap their heads around clinical depression and blames Justine for her unhappiness. But Justine exhibits behaviour demonstrating how little she can control what's happening to her--she does things she knows are wrong, like fucking a guy she just met at the wedding, because the feelings attending these actions are the only ones that seem honest to her.

So Justine develops a strange affection for Melancholia. The doom it promises puts life and her feelings in sync.

Von Trier's definitely a long way from his dogma film style here, but he shifts between carefully composed still shots and shaky, dogma-ish hand held footage. Though even the hand held segments seem as though they may have more premeditation than the dogma style allows. I don't know if the yellow lighting at the golf course was there when the location was chosen for filming, but the contrast between it and the green and blue darkness create some classic Van Gogh threatening despair.

The physics of two planets hitting each other doesn't seem accurately presented in the film, but that's okay. It serves the artistic truth. I would even call it a science fiction film, since it deals with the human reaction to the speculation of a natural phenomenon. The phenomenon may not go down exactly as it does in the movie, but I think the film covers the kinds of reactions people would have.

There's a very subtle magical element to the film, too. Justine's horse recoils from crossing a specific bridge throughout her life. It won't cross even when Justine beats it, and it seems to reflect the part of Justine that still wishes she could overcome her depression. John, in his typical materialistic pride brings up the fact that his golf course has eighteen holes, and later, when the world's ending, we see Charlotte Gainsbourg running past the nineteenth hole.

The film's score uses music from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Wagner is incredibly fitting. Few artists so perfectly evoke the grandeur and beauty of despair. Lars von Trier's here such an artist, too.

Twitter Sonnet #338

Full foam cylinders hold captured scalps in.
Generations of misspellings combine.
Only Buddha says if Batman will win.
Stout fish stand for tiny cups of red wine.
Hidden ceiling beds help a kind murder.
Tendons turn brown aged under astroturf.
See through stockings now take one step further.
Wadded cotton is inadequate Earth.
Cartilage pins protrude toward everywhere.
Sixty apples keep huge doctors away.
There's no sign of soup on the silverware.
Nutmeg film rolls show a bright ochre day.
Cotton cradles the orb of blue iron.
Brunhilde's pyre also engulfs Guiron.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Justice Just Around the Bend

I love a story about a group of characters fighting where no-one's a hero and no-one's a villain. It seems to be really tricky to do, as more often than not someone comes out looking improbably unwise. Asghar Farhadi's A Separation pulls it off, presenting characters who almost always ring true despite being so thoroughly divided. One does wish at times that they simply listen to one another, but one wishes it in the way one wishes it about real people, not about phoney characters. Since the movie gives you reasons to invest in all the characters, it's a neat portrait of the nature of human strife.

It avoids the trite moral seesaw of a movie like the Paul Haggis Crash, where a film goes back and forth between scenes of one character being a jerk and then in another situation being good. The film primarily concerns two married couples, one middle class and apparently secular and the other poor and deeply religious. But while these factors are relevant, the nature of their disagreements isn't rested on these differences.

The title at first seems to refer to the divorce of Naader and Simin, the secular couple. In fact, the full Iranian title of the movie translates to Naader and Simin, a Separation. It's mainly an amicable divorce, it seems--they still like and respect each other, but Simin wants to move out of the country for her career and Naader wants to stay in Iran and take of his father who has Alzheimer's. They have a young daughter, Termeh, whom Simin does not want growing up in Iran and Termeh's forced to choose between the two parents. The main plot of the movie seems nominally unrelated, but by the end we realise it provides a demonstration to Termeh of the qualities of both her parents' characters, which serves to confirm the impossibility of the decision she needs to make.

The religious couple, Houjat and Razieh, come into the other couple's lives when Naader engages Razieh to care for his father while he's out during the day. The movie shows how devout religious observance can present a number of obstacles to the impoverished--men are expected to provide for the women, but Houjat's been out of work for a long time, so Razieh accepts the job in secret. She's forbidden to touch men who aren't her husband, which presents some difficulty when Naader's father turns out to be incontinent.

The trouble starts when Razieh leaves Naader's father unattended for a little while during the day and Naader comes home to find the old man lying on the floor with his hand tied to the bed--apparently Razieh had tied him there to keep him from getting out and the man had fallen out of the bed at some point. When Naader thinks some money has gone missing, there follows a heated argument between himself and Razieh, where he's shocked by the treatment of his father and she's indignant at being accused of low behaviour and refuses to leave without being paid for the day, resulting in Naader shoving her out the door. This possibly causes her to fall down the stairs of the apartment building and miscarry. From here things get thornier and thornier

The question of where Razieh had needed to go when she left Naader's father unattended is avoided a bit too long--she's asked a couple of times before an outburst from someone else conveniently interrupts her. But her answer to the question doesn't end up resolving the argument as neatly as I feared it would.

There's no cynic in this movie, everyone acts out of deeply felt principles, everyone tries to behave in a way he or she considers noble, and this is what leads to problems. Naader fights because he won't accept the idea that he's the murderer of Razieh's child, Razieh fights because she's been mistreated in so many ways, Houjat fights because he's tired of the world working against him, and Simin fights because she just wants all this madness over with. Everyone is right, so no-one wins. And that's how it goes.

Monday, December 26, 2011

When Magic is Science, Magic AND Science Lose

Please . . . please, Mr. Moffat, no more. No more children. Please stop. Please. You're killing me. And no more zaniness. And a touch less gooiness, if you please. The Doctor Who Christmas special was sort of like being kissed by a giant camel who has a problem with excessive salivation.

The episode had its good points. The highlight of the episode was the scene where Madge finds the Doctor with his helmet on backwards, takes all the alienness completely in stride, and gets the police box open with a bobby pin. I also liked the moment when the Doctor gets insightful about why the woman's testy with the children. The forest of naturally occurring Christmas trees was a decent enough premise as well. And it's just nice seeing the Doctor during a dry spell, though it's frustrating knowing the show likely won't be back to regular episodes until fall 2012. There were some funny lines, too--I liked when the Doctor said the TARDIS was a wardrobe and that he needed to rewire it. When asked why, he says, "Have you seen the way I dress?" Though I have to say I was very pleased by the return of the blazer instead of the trench coat he'd started wearing at the end of the preceding season.

Unfortunately the episode topples under the weight of mostly pointless and distracting children and a much too effusive climax.

It didn't ruin Christmas for me, though. I got some nice gifts and the ones I gave seemed to go over well. I went to the yearly family gathering and spent most of it sitting and reading Maison Ikkoku. This elicited some dumbfounded pity from an uncle sitting next to me, who was reading what he considered the far more interesting Mining Journal. He pointed out to me an ad for what he called "the Rolls-Royce" of metal detectors, a sixty-five thousand dollar one. Sounds like a sound investment.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Maximum Christmas

To-day we celebrate the day when Grace made Nature look like a real jerk. So if you find yourself behaving naturally to-day, please remember to flagellate yourself.

Twitter Sonnet #337

Autumn drains the colour from the cookie.
Sounds of sex wreathe Santa's sanguine sadness.
Hacked hooves are no use to Blitzen's bookie.
Some say deer betting horses is madness.
Prosthetic hands beat on the stable door.
Antlered faces frighten God's baby dimes.
Tissue red dwarves crinkle across the floor.
Rodent robocops cry for Christmas crimes.
Holly bursting drizzles crimson juices.
Too green mistletoe spirals round Scottie.
Temporary Madeleines make truces.
Teeth burn on electrified biscotti.
Earth stands tranquil in a cosmic mitten.
Toys are strange when once by elves they're bitten.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Beyond Reach

Joe Randazzo linked to this on Twitter last night and it hasn't stopped making me laugh;

I went to my favourite cinema in town yesterday, the Landmark in Hillcrest, neighbourhood of surviving independent bookstores and gay pride parades. I hadn't been there in over a year and I was a little worried the bookstores might be gone, but they were still there and a new indie record store had opened to boot. I wish I could go to Hillcrest more often--I used to go with Trisa all the time, but now, of course, it costs around twice as much as it used to to drive across town.

I was willing to go to the expense for the new David Cronenberg movie, A Dangerous Method, but I got to the theatre five minutes late, so I saw the other Michael Fassbender movie playing there, Shame, which costars Carey Mulligan. She's an actress whose choices in films haven't let me down yet, even the Doctor Who episode she was in was a cut above average, and Shame was no aberration. Shame is very much an actor's film, too. More Fassbender's than Mulligan's, but both are crucial.

Brandon (Fassbender) and Sissy (Mulligan) are a pair of sibling nymphomaniacs. Well, I'm not sure it's proper to use that word. Almost every review and synopsis for the film says it's about sex addiction, but I think the film may make the argument that such appellations are deceptively simplistic. For one thing, the siblings' compulsions manifest very differently.

Sissy says once to Brandon, "We're not bad people, we just come from a bad place," and this is the only mention of how, presumably, their childhood has influenced their modes of living in adulthood. And it's all that's really needed, because what the two have in common is that each is a person trying to figure out how to give and receive love. For Brandon, the closest he can come to intimacy is by orgasm. We see him constantly hiring prostitutes and jerking off to myriad pornography.*

For Sissy, the problem manifests in extreme co-dependency. Brandon overhears her leaving a desperate phone message for a man at one point, crying, proclaiming her love and saying she doesn't know what's wrong with her.

It's a subtly told story, a lot of it is in actors exchanging facial expressions. And, as the movie is NC-17, a lot of it is in sex scenes. If you're looking for a movie to point to as a counterargument to people who say sex scenes in films are always awkward and distracting, this is one. There's one scene in particular I thought was brilliant, where Brandon tries to have a go with what he sees as a healthier, loving relationship and he tries to make love to woman. It's a scene that takes place in one rather long take and it's some of the most tender, convincing simulated sex I've seen. Actually, it was a lot more convincing than some real sex I've seen. And it illuminated Brandon's troubles perfectly, in a way a movie couldn't do while avoiding explicit sex scenes.

There are a few conspicuous "Oscar moments", some moments where Fassbender gets a bit more emotive than serves the story, but yes, give this guy an Oscar. Not just for showing his penis on camera, either--the movie rests on his and Mulligan's subtle and intensely communicative performances. Particularly Fassbender's. There are few such amazing portraits of a man stranded in the Hell of himself.

*One of the flaws of this film is how unacquainted the filmmakers seemed with sensible porn purveyance. I mean, I'm not even talking about compulsive levels, just listening to Howard Stern for a few days would've given these folks a useful perspective. Here are some pointers I'd give Brandon;

1) Stop buying magazines. What are you, from 1980? There's so much free porn on the internet, there's no point in keeping a stash of hardcopies you're obviously ashamed of.

2) Stop saving porn on your hard drive. There's no end to free porn. Really.

3) If you insist on paying money for internet porn, it's probably not a good idea to just leave the meter running on a camgirl session while you're away from the computer for an extended period of time. This won't just save you money, it'll also prevent your sister from sitting down in front of the computer and being forcibly made aware of habits you'd evidently like to keep secret.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bones in a Pit

The ugliness and viciousness of depravation coalesce in a demoniac distortion of women in Kaneto Shindo's 1964 film Onibaba. Set at the beginning of a long period of bloody civil war, the film uses elements of myth to tell a very effective, very raw story of regular people adapting to a beastly reality. A reality where old moral perspectives become brutal, arbitrary traps.

The story concerns an unnamed peasant woman and her daughter-in-law who, as the story opens, have taken to murdering samurai and soldiers fleeing battle, taking their armour and weapons to trade them for millet as the constant battle and rampant thievery in the area have made farming all but impossible. The movie opens with a dark, ominous shot captioned "The Hole" before it's revealed this is the hole where the two women dump the bodies of men they've stripped. Already we're getting a very blatant, dark take on womanhood before the more literal plot begins, where a wedge is driven between the women by the return of their neighbour, Hachi.

Hachi went off to be a soldier along with Kichi, the older woman's son and the younger's husband. Hachi tells them Kichi's been killed and soon Hachi gets to work seducing the younger woman. The older woman is brought to agitation both by jealousy borne of sexual frustration and by the realisation that she probably can't keep up killing soldiers without the help of the younger woman, whose trysts threaten to result in marriage to Hachi.

In an effort to dissuade the young woman from the course of nature, the older woman invokes religion, aided in this task when she takes a demon mask from a samurai she kills.

When virtually everyone is a killer and a thief, the fact that some seem to incur divine punishment while others don't comes across as particularly terrible sorting of matters. The movie's told from the point of view of the older woman, whose desperate actions are mingled with the blows to vanity that come with aging. It underlines a sort of oppressive portrait of a world where the facade of justice is shown to conceal chaos.

Twitter Sonnet #336: Dairy Crisis Edition

Hidden leopards spread the cheese on bagels.
Heated blue pencils fill the topless Page.
Famished ramen noodles trace swan angles.
Things unsought by a level eighty mage.
Polygraph wrinkles fade under white out.
Golden pinfeathers fly at the teller.
Strips of spinach metal spoil a spout.
Burning tin's an ephemeral seller.
Correct pet calendars are quickly sold.
The lost ice cream returns in a decade.
The mind's gelatinous toppings grow old.
Soon synaptic sprinkles from fillings fade.
Cowbell sponges soak up heavy alarm.
Desperate grass means to do the bovine harm.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Penis Monsters

Well, my credibility's probably about to go out the window. Just days after posting an essentially negative review of one of the most critically beloved movies of the year, I'm about to tell you I enjoyed a film that has a 26% on Rotten Tomatoes. To be sure, Your Highness aims much lower. It made me laugh, though, consistently.

I think I was able to enjoy it more than most critics because the two biggest objections to the film didn't apply to me--I wasn't shocked by the vulgarity and I didn't find the story empty or tedious. This may be because most critics wouldn't have the frame of reference I do. Very quickly I understood what this movie was. It's essentially a transcript of a Dungeons and Dragons gaming session played by a group of stoned teenage nerds. Much in the movie that was taken as detached and ironic was actually, I think, quite sincere. Most people who play (or played, I don't actually know if it's still done in the age of WoW) old fashioned pen and paper role playing games don't really know shit about the Middle Ages. They don't know how to speak with the appropriate diction; they don't really have a good idea of how things work in a medieval world. Usually the stories they weave amongst themselves draw on aspects of popular movies or books. Their language is a mix of the stylised dialogue of those movies and books and their natural, contemporary speech. This isn't a sign that they don't take the story and the characters seriously, but rather that they're invested enough in them that finding the emotional or artistic truth is more important to them than avoiding anachronisms.

Your Highness almost never deviates from this premise, and in the movie you can see these kids using the format to work through their own preoccupations and questions. All the gay jokes don't strike me as homophobic so much as kids as yet uncomfortable with their sexuality processing how displays of affection are different in something like Lord of the Rings. James Franco as the Prince Fabious kissing his brother Thadeous, played by Danny McBride, fully on the lips is exactly how your average 15 year old boy would process something like Aragorn kissing Boromir on the forehead. The affectionate joke here is on that 15 year old boy, whose reasoning can't perfectly assimilate a culture in which machismo manifests differently--there's a logic instead that goes something like, "In this culture, it's okay to be slightly gay, even though I would normally be uncomfortable with it, and it's proper here to act in a way I would normally consider slightly gay."

So for me, there's no dissonance for me when Fabious calls the villain, played by Justin Theroux a "motherfucker". This is how young nerds talk. I'm continually amazed that middle aged, middle class critics are amazed. I know they're not part of the culture, but do they ever look at the comments threads on Ain't It Cool News? Haven't Kevin Smith movies taught them anything? I suppose I can't understand it because the "F word" has so long since lost its punch for me. Maybe if it automatically injected me with a sense of shock and vague shame, I'd sympathise with those uncomfortable with hearing it repeatedly.

Justin Theroux's really good as the wizard, and his delivery when he tries to convince his captive Zooey Deschanel that her beloved Fabious frequently engages in orgies and ejaculates on barbarian men is so great. It's again that teenage boy genuinely trying to put himself in the place of an evil wizard trying to sway the affections of the princess. Both Deschanel and Portman are good with the group of boys--Deschanel has fun with her role as the innocent virgin character really borne more of young male hormonal fantasy than reality and Portman as the strong warrior woman seems to get that her role is really more of a surrogate mommy than the object of desire she ostensibly seems to be.

There are direct parodies of old fantasy movies, like Fabious' stupid mechanical bird companion which seems to be poking fun at the one in the old Clash of the Titans. But there's sincerity in the danger, too--the guy who sticks his hand in a pot of yellow liquid to make a giant hand with snake heads to fight the heroes is simply a cool idea.

There's a sweetness in the characters' desires to validate themselves by defeating evil and strengthening their bonds with one another. Your Highness is a nice little comedy about kids finding goodness in themselves, and finding ways to make it palatable next to their insecurities.